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THE BOY POET SULPICIUS— A TRAGEDY OF 
ROMAN EDUCATION. 1 

Early in the year 1871 excavations at the Porta Salaria in 
Rome brought to light a monument of more than usual signifi- 
cance to those interested in the educational problems of antiq- 
uity. The commemorative inscription found near by declared 
it the tomb of Quintus Sulpicius Maximus, a lad of eleven years, 
five months, and twelve days, who in 94 A. D. acquitted him- 
self with credit in the third of the quinquennial contests insti- 
tuted by Domitian in honor of Jupiter Capitolinus. This tomb, 
facing originally on the Via Salaria not far from the Colline Gate 
of Servius Tullius, had been built into the Aurelian Wall, 
restored in the early part of the fifth century by Arcadius and 
Honorius. The statue and the inscription from this tomb, which 
form the subject of this paper, are to be found in an upper room 
of the Capitoline Museum, where the boy prodigy holds out his 
scroll appealingly to an unappreciative audience of odds and 
ends that rarely attract the casual visitor. 

The marble slab measures 45 inches in height, 34 inches in 
width, and 27 inches in thickness. The figure of the young 
poet, 28 inches in height, stands in a niche covered by a gable 
with a laurel crown in the tympanum, and with acanthus and 
other leaves in the antifixes. The entire front at the right and 
left of this niche are closely inscribed with forty Greek hexam- 
eters of the poem, the last three being with difficulty deci- 
phered from the scroll in the hands of the boy. The space below 
the niche contains first a dedication in Latin extending from 
cornice to cornice, and under this, in two columns, two Greek 
epigrams written probably by the father. The Latin inscription 
is in the symmetrical, clear capitals of the early empire, the height 
varying from three-quarters of an inch in the dedication formula, 
D. M., to half an inch in the fourth and fifth lines. It reads: 2 

1 Read at the Classical Conference at Ann Arbor, Mich., March 27; see p. 406. 
' The text of the inscriptions is given by Henzen, Bull. deW Inst., 1871, pp. 08- 
117; Kaibel, Inscriptiones Graecae Siciliae et Italiae, pp. 494-6; cf. also Kaibel, 

384 



THE BOY POET SULPICIUS 385 

Sacred to the Deified Shades of the Dead. 
In memory of Quintus Sulpicius Maximus, the son of Quintus, of the Claudian 
tribe. His home was at Rome. He lived eleven years, five months, and 
twelve days. In the third lustrum of the contest, entering the competition as 
one among fifty-two Greek poets, he roused to admiration by his talent the 
favor he had won by his tender years, and came off with distinction. That 
his parents may not seem to have been unduly influenced by their affection 
for him, his extemporaneous verses have been inscribed below. Quintus 
Sulpicius Eugramus and Licinia Januaria, his unfortunate parents, erected 
this tomb for their devoted son, for themselves, and for their descendants. 

The Greek epigrams are in two columns, that on the left 
being about 16 inches wide, that on the right less than 13 inches; 
the average height of the letters is about half an inch. They are 
closely connected in thought ; literally translated they read: 

Though but a lad of twelve short years was I, 
I left this contest for the land of shades. 

Disease and weariness reft me away, 

For of the Muses dreamed I, morning, noon, and night. 

I pray you for the sake of this poor lad, 

Pause here and see his off-hand verses' dainty grace. 

And speak through falling tears, with gracious lips 
This single prayer, " Fare thou to Elysian land." 

For thou hast left here living nightingales, 
Which greedy-handed Pluto ne'er shall seize. 

How slight this token of our love ; and yet thy fame to heaven shall come. 
Oh, Maximus, by thee the Pierian Muses have been far outdone. 

Nor nameless didst thou bow to ruthless fate, 
Which gave thy song no lethal lot. 

No one with tearless eyes thy tomb shall pass, 
Beholding here thy verses, row on row. 

Thy glory is secure, for not unknown 

Shalt thou repose, gazed on by humbler shades. 

The title of the extempore verse of the young Sulpicius is in 
letters about half an inch high ; the body of the poem is cut in 
smaller letters which were much crowded in the right-hand col- 

Epigrammata Graeca ex lapidibus conlecta, pp. 250-53. The monument of Sulpicius 
is reproduced by Lanciani in Pagan and Christian Rome (full-page illustration, 
facing p. 282). 



386 THE SCHOOL REVIEW 

una in order to get the whole poem into the available space. A 
translation follows: 

THE EXTEMPORANEOUS VERSES OF QUINTUS SULPICIUS MAXIMUS : THE 
WORDS GREAT ZEUS MIGHT HAVE USED, UPBRAIDING HELIOS BECAUSE 
HE GAVE HIS CAR TO PHAETHON. 

The light-bearing charioteer of our well-ordered world, 

Thee alone did the gods, lords of heaven, appoint. 

Why then, pray, thy heedless son bring to the vault of Olympus, 

And thy charger's ineffable swiftness surrender to him, 

Not even in secret afraid of my power? 

False to the gods this folly of thine. Now whither away 

Fled young Phaethon's car? Thy torch's unquenchable fire, 

Why up to my throne did it flare ? why through the wide world 

And the circling stars swept thy stifling heat ? 

Old Ocean raised his suppliant hands to heaven, 

What stream lamented not its dwindling course ? 

The harvests on the fruitful ground lay sear, 

And every swain leaned on his scythe and mourned his parching sheaves, 

In vain he sowed the ungracious soil ; in vain 

He yoked his oxen to his crooked plow. Till evening star 

Behind his weary oxen, bent his manly limbs. 

All lands made moan for him, that heedless boy, 

And I at last did quench his glowing flame. 

Weep not the lad's dire fate, but for thy world take thought 

Lest thou shouldst find the flaming weapon from my hand too fierce for thee. 

Mark well the mind of heaven-dwelling Zeus. 

By Rhea's self, Olympus never saw a madder prank ; 

My world, thy trust, no schoolboy's task, to rule ! 

Let be the past ; the future guard with greater care. 

Unworthy of his sire, thy son. He wot not of thy chargers' boundless strength, 

Nor had he skill to guide the reins, thy task stupendous. 

Come now, return to earth again, lest unto other hands be given 

Thy vaunted task, the fleeting pleasures of thy toilsome round. 

Thou only, hastening on with flaming wheels, 

All that fair way from East to West didst pass. 

To thee this trust I gave, thy ceaseless vaunt. 

Take pity on the earth and all the star-bright world, 

And through Olympus hold thy way again. 

Such tasks are god-befitting, such our rightful sphere. 

Thy gracious light again, oh, god, take up. — Thy son hath ravaged wide. — 

And do thou then thyself the vault illimitable traverse, 



THE BOY POET SULPICIUS 387 

Half way 'twixt heaven above and earth beneath. 
For thus thy fires will light the sons of Uranus, 
And mortal prayers be ever free from plaint. 
Thus shalt thou find the heart of Zeus o'ersoft to pardon thee. 
But if some other purpose hold thee, reckless one, 
The stars themselves be witness, that my flaming bolt 

With swift-winged power shall utterly destroy alike the bodies of thy steeds 
and of thy son. 

It is quite outside the province of this paper to comment 
upon the literary merit of these verses. They will, of course, 
never be reckoned with as a part of the world's literature. But 
as the swan song of this ambitious Roman boy, they have a 
peculiar pathos that haunts the imagination. We are touched, 
too, in the dedication, by the note of parental pride mingling 
with the grief, which has outlived the centuries and makes real 
to us the sorrow of Sulpicius Eugramus and Licinia Januaria. 

But aside from the sentiment that clings to it, the entire inci- 
dent has a distinct value for the student of ancient life. It is 
possible to explain the effort of this talented boy upon reason- 
able grounds. He was the logical product of a system of training, 
reinforced probably by an unusual inheritance and environ- 
ment which forced him to an untimely fruition. Although an 
investigation of such limited sources as we have at hand will 
clearly yield results less satisfactory and conclusive than we 
might wish, the attempt to reconstruct the inheritance, environ- 
ment, and training of young Sulpicius will illustrate the peda- 
gogical ideals and educational methods of the Early Empire. 

The father of the youthful poet was probably a freedman ; 
for while the son bore a Roman cognomen, Maximus, and is fur- 
ther distinguished by the designation of his tribe (the Claudian), 
the mark of a freeborn Roman, Eugramus has neither. The 
latter had apparently belonged to some Q. Sulpicius whose 
praenomen and nomen, according to the Roman custom, he had 
taken, after his manumission, in addition to his own slave name. 

It might at first seem a hopeless task, considering the extent 
of this gens, even to conjecture with which particular Q. Sulpi- 
cius our Eugramus had been connected. In the Prosopographia 
Imperii Romani (Vol. Ill, pp. 281-90) appear forty-one men of 



3^8 THE SCHOOL REVIEW 

this name. In the Corpus of Latin Inscriptions (Vol. VI, 4, 1, 
26944-27018) are given seventy-four epitaphs from tombs of the 
Sulpician gens and of its freedmen. The praenomen Quintus, 
however, was unusual among the Sulpicii, Gaius and Servius being 
more common. In the sixth volume of the Corpus it appears in 
only three inscriptions, all apparently epitaphs of freedmen (C. 
I. L. VI, 4, 26949, 26968, 26969). In the Prosopographia there 
are also but three. This reduces the difficulty of identification 
somewhat, for a study of our available sources indicates that the 
name Quintus was common only in the Camerini family. It is 
possible, therefore, that the former master of Q. Sulpicius 
Eugramus was a Q. Sulpicius Camerinus. 

Perhaps this identification is sufficient for our purpose, if it 
connects Eugramus with a family mentioned by Juvenal, who 
wrote about this same time (Sat. VII, 90; VIII, 38), as typical 
of the nobility, having a record not only for distinguished service, 
but for refined literary interests, counting among its members an 
ambassador to Greece in the investigation of Greek codes prelimi- 
nary to the decemvirate of 451 B. C, and an epic poet mentioned 
by Ovid as a contemporary. The most distinguished of the 
Sulpicii Camerini died only fifteen years before the birth of 
the young poet. This was Sulpicius Camerinus, called either 
Py thicus or, as Mommsen conjectures, Peticus, from a distinguished 
ancestor, Gaius Sulpicius Peticus, dictator in 396 B. C, and five 
times consul. He was the son of the epic poet already men- 
tioned; consul in 46, proconsul in Africa in 56, a member of the 
exclusively patrician society of the Arval Brothers, being in 60 
president of the Board of Sacrifice. In 67 he and his son were 
put to death on a charge of treason, because they had ventured 
to use this hereditary cognomen Pythicus, which Nero claimed as 
his sole right. Since evidence is not lacking that Eugramus had 
in 94 been free for a considerable time, the interval of twenty- 
seven years between the death of Peticus and that of young Max- 
imus offers no serious objection to the supposition that Eugramus 
was possibly the freedman of Q. Sulpicius Camerinus Peticus. 

His nationality could hardly be proved conclusively by the 
fact that as a slave he had borne a Greek name, for it is not impos- 



THE BOY POET SULPICIUS 389 

sible that such names were applied indiscriminately, according to 
the master's fancy, to slaves of all races. But the direct statement 
that his son was one among fifty-two Greek poets may indicate 
that Eugramus was himself a Greek. 

At the time of his son's death in 94, Eugramus was evidently 
a man of considerable means; the fact is attested by the rather 
elaborate character of the tomb and its location on the Via 
Salaria, the burial place of well-to-do families. If his master 
was indeed Sulpicius Camerinus Peticus, the wealth could not 
have come to Eugramus from him, since his property was 
undoubtedly divided between the state and the informer M. 
Aquilius Regulus. We must suppose, therefore, that it was 
obtained from some other source. 

What his occupation was, it is impossible to determine. Since 
we find no mention of him in any literary or epigraphical docu- 
ment, we have no evidence connecting him. with any political 
office or position of court favor. Could we but be sure that he 
was the author of the epigrams, we should have a reasonable clue. 
A comparison of these epigrams with the Latin inscription shows 
striking points of similarity. There is in both the same mingling 
of grief and pride, the same emphasis of the boy's youth, the same 
reason given for displaying his verse as a vindication of parental 
pride and as an appeal for universal sympathy — resemblances 
that suggest a common author. 

The epigrams show a finish and mastery of form that marks 
them as the work of a Greek, and since Eugramus was quite 
possibly a Greek and in all probability wrote the dedication, it 
may well be that he also wrote the epigrams. If we can upon 
such shadowy evidence admit at least the probability of this 
supposition, we shall naturally suppose him to have belonged to 
the large class of Greek grammarians and rhetoricians so common 
in this period. His slave name, Eugramus, and his probable 
connection with the Camerini, noted for their literary interests, 
may imply that as a slave he had been employed as a tutor or as 
a rhetorician in his master's family. 

These hypotheses are significant only so far as they furnish a 
possible explanation of the boy's precocity. If Eugramus was 



39° THE SCHOOL REVIEW 

a Greek freedman with years of experience as a grammarian or 
a rhetorician, first as the slave of a cultured house and later per- 
haps as an independent teacher of the art, the son's literary 
taste, ambition, and in a degree his talent may have been part of 
his inheritance. Moreover, his home language would in that case 
have been Greek, and he would have heard the limited stock of 
rhetorical commonplaces treated over and over by his father's 
pupils, till the catch-phrases and hackneyed vocabulary would 
become almost unconsciously his own. 

But while these hypotheses might in a measure account for the 
character of the boy's precocity, they do not explain the peculiar 
way in which it was manifested. The mere fact that in this 
competition, Sulpicius was but one among fifty-two contestants, 
may serve to indicate how common this form of extemporizing 
was in the classical period. It is evident, therefore, that the 
system of training employed is an important element in the 
problem, and our evidence is here fortunately sufficient to war- 
rant somewhat more definite conclusions. 

Aside from our literary evidence, even of a direct character, 
like the Institutes of Quintilian, we have for consideration in this 
poem a document which has the unimpeachable value of epi- 
graphical testimony. These verses have been practically unaffected 
in transmission. We look today upon the very letters which the 
proud father had carved beside the figure of his son. We have 
no haunting specter of textual criticism to lay, before we can 
approximate the original. 

Moreover, this poem is not an isolated phenomenon. Its 
relations involve the whole complex system of ancient thought ; 
its ramifications strike deep into the history of ancient literature, 
art, and education. Like the "flower in the crannied wall," it 
has little individual significance, but as the product of an organ- 
ism, it bears marks of its origin. If we could but understand it 
thoroughly in all its relations, we should better comprehend the 
entire system of rhetorical training under the Roman empire. 
Before examining the literary evidence, therefore, we may seek 
at first hand in the poem itself for traces of the ideal and the more 
obvious features of the system that produced it. 



THE BOY POET SULPICIUS 39 1 

The most superficial examination stamps the poem as abnor- 
mal. Content and form have their normal relation neither to 
each other nor to the personality of the poet. The legitimate 
function of form is to give adequate expression to content. Any 
attempt to give it artificial value, aside from the satisfactory per- 
formance of this function, results in an effect of sham. In pro- 
portion as this balance is destroyed, the work of art falls in the 
scale of values. It is evident that in the poem under considera- 
tion the content furnishes a mere excuse for displaying a 
mastery of form, which has become practically the sole con- 
sideration. We have here an example of the Alexandrine school 
in its dotage — the fatal substitution of the mechanical for the 
organic. 

In the second place, the content of a work of art, if not 
wholly the product of the creative imagination, is normally so 
molded and affected by it as to bear unmistakable traces of the 
artist's personality. The fact that Ovid, seventy-five years 
before, and Lucian, seventy-five years after, treated the same 
theme along practically the same lines, indicates clearly enough 
that the young Sulpicius was presenting here a conventional 
commonplace. The picture was given to him complete in all its 
details, and he was not stimulated to develop it in any way by 
the creative imagination. 

Moreover, as we shall have occasion to note in another con- 
nection, the form does not result from a spontaneous attempt to 
express a conception in adequate terms, but in a conscious effort 
to recall and fit together conventional rhetorical phrases, asso- 
ciated more or less mechanically with the theme. 

We are perhaps safe in summarizing as follows the general 
aim of the rhetorical system in vogue at the end of the first 
century : 

1. It exalted form to independent importance. 

2. It aimed at a system of rhetorical mechanics. 

3. It substituted memory, the most mechanical of the mental 
processes, for the creative imagination. 

4. Its ideal was conformity to tradition and convention rather 
than stimulation to original effort. 



392 THE SCHOOL REVIEW 

These conditions are enforced by a more detailed examina- 
tion of the poem of Sulpicius. We find the vocabulary remark- 
ably varied and complete, two words, at least so far as extant 
Greek goes, being apparently found only here. In the case of 
a boy of twelve years, it is clear that so great a command of 
literary words and striking epithets must have been the result of 
his training. A study of his sources in this particular will, 
therefore, suggest the authors upon which this training was 
based ; the limits of this paper preclude more than the briefest 
possible summary. 

1. Of the 28 epithets in the poem, 15 are distinctly Homeric, 
4 are found in Homer but also in other authors, 4 remain unclas- 
sified, and only 7 are not Homeric, traceable to other sources. 

2. Of the 55 substantives, 25 are distinctly Homeric, 14 are 
found in Homer and also in other authors, 4 remain unclassified, 
and only 12 are not Homeric. 

3. The colorless character of the verbs, in contrast to the 
striking epithets and substantives, is significant of the florid 
style. Only 10 of the 45 verbs deserve any special notice. Of 
these 4 are Homeric, 2 are found in Homer and elsewhere, 2 are 
unclassified, and 2 are not Homeric. 

4. Of the 3 words not included in the classes mentioned, 2 
are not Homeric. 

Thus we see that of the 96 words studied 68, or two-thirds of 
the entire number, are Homeric. Of the non-Homeric words, 
11 are common in Herodotus, 9 in Hesiod, 7 in Pindar, 7 in 
Euripides, 5 in Xenophon, 5 in Apollonius Rhodius, 3 in Soph- 
ocles, 2 in iEschylus. 

The natural conclusions from these data would be, first, that 
the boy's training had included an intensive drill in Homer. 
This conclusion is further supported by the fact that the forms 
are regularly Homeric, no matter what the source from which 
the word was derived. Moreover, Homeric words are employed 
with an intimate knowledge of this usage. To illustrate with a 
single example, the form fioeaai appears in Homer with one 
exception at the end of the line, as it does in the sixteenth line 
of our poem. In the second place, we see that the drill in 



THE BOY POET SULPICIUS 393 

Homer was apparently supplemented by the study of Hesiod, 
Pindar, Euripides, Apollonius Rhodius, and perhaps also of 
Herodotus and Xenophon. Now, while it is conceivable that a 
twelve-year-old boy may have read his Homer repeatedly, it 
seems evident that he could not also have read Herodotus, 
Hesiod, Pindar, Euripides, Xenophon, Apollonius Rhodius 
Sophocles, and ^Eschylus with enough intensity to have had an 
appreciable effect upon his memory. They must have been pre- 
sented to him either in judicious selections by his teacher, or 
striking phrases, possibly whole lines, were given him as supple- 
mental to his Homer. That this was actually the kind of train- 
ing that the boy received is made probable by the statement 
of Quintilian (I, viii), which is worth quoting: 

It is extremely proper that they begin with reading Homer and Virgil. 
Tragedies are useful, and lyric poets, too ; provided you not only select your 
authors, but the passages in the several authors. 

This kind of training was entirely consistent with the ideals 
and methods of the period. In support of our contention it is 
only necessary to refer to other passages of Quintilian, who, 
though he intended his work primarily for aspiring orators, has 
outlined in a very definite fashion a system of elementary train- 
ing of far wider application. Thus, in his view, the ideals in the 
primary education, as in the boy's later study, were memory and 
imitation He says (I, iii, i) : "The most important indication 
of natural ability in children is memory The next impor- 
tant is imitation ; " and farther on (I, i, 36) : 

For memory, as I shall show in the proper place, is especially important 
for the orator ; and it is especially strengthened and nourished by exercise ; 
in the age of which we are now speaking, which can create nothing of itself, 
it is almost the only faculty which can be improved by the care of a teacher. 

The system embodying this ideal was in brief as follows : 
Primary education began with a tutor from the child's third to 
his seventh year, and consisted largely in reading and writing 
(Quint., I, i, 15). Secondary education under a grammaticus , 
or instructor in the elementary classics, followed as soon as 
the boy could read and write. The two main branches of this 
training consisted in a study of the Greek and Latin poets, and 



394 THE SCHOOL REVIEW 

in elementary composition, both oral and written, based on this 
study (Quint., I, ix). Homer and Virgil are recommended 
as the proper authors with which the boy's serious reading 
should begin, and as a basis for all subsequent study. These are 
supplemented by judicious selections from the tragedies and 
lyrics. The Latin authors specially mentioned are Ennius, 
Accius, Pacuvius, Lucilius, Terence and Caecilius. 

The method of study applied to these poets consisted 
(Quint., I, iv, v), in parsing and construing the words; in a 
study of versification ; in a study of style with particular refer- 
ence to poetic license ; in a study of synonyms, archaisms, and 
in the acquisition of a choice vocabulary of such words ; in a 
practical mastery of figures of speech and all rhetorical orna- 
ment ; in a study of structure and disposition ; in a mastery of 
historical detail ; and, finally, in the memorizing of choice pas- 
sages. 

The oral and written composition, based upon this intensive 
reading and carried along at the same time with it, consisted of 
exercises in both prose and verse. The prose exercises were at 
first the simple narration of familiar tales, jEsop being especially 
recommended, followed by an elaboration of these simple nar- 
ratives by various rhetorical devices (Quint. I, ix, i). In 
poetry the verses were analyzed and explained in the pupils' 
own words, and were then paraphrased (I, ix). A single quota- 
tion will show how implicitly Quintilian believed in the efficacy 
of this system, and will at the same time throw light on the 
study of our poem (Quint., II, vii, 2, 3) : 

If boys are early accustomed to compose after the best models, they will 
always have in their memories something which they may imitate and, with- 
out even realizing it, will reproduce that sort of style which has made the 
deepest impression upon them. They will never be at a loss for plenty of 
the best words, phrases, and figures, which they need not hunt for, since these 
will offer themselves spontaneously as from a magazine treasured up in their 
minds. 

The subject of extemporaneous poetical composition in antiq- 
uity is too extensive to be discussed here. In the case of our 
poem, the process of composition seems to have consisted in a 
more or less mechanical fitting together, to meet the require- 



THE BO Y POE T SULPICIUS 395 

ments of the hexameter verse, of words and phrases recalled 
from an intensive drill in Homer and other Greek poets. 

The character of the evidence does not permit us to draw 
from our study a fuller knowledge of the lad Sulpicius. After 
all, the real value of his poem for us lies not in the interesting 
half glimpse it gives into the heart of ancient education, but in 
the pathos that humanizes it and lifts it above all accidental 
associations of time or place. The ambitious parents, proud 
even in their grief, the brilliant child, poring over his Homer 
night and day that he might win in the imperial contest, and 
dying at last from the unnatural strain, in the disappointment of 
defeat, give us for the moment a sense of intimate kinship with 
Roman life, of sympathy for those living eighteen centuries ago 
like that which we feel for those about us. 

J. Raleigh Nelson. 
Lewis Institute, 
Chicago.